Defining white privilege is part of the race discussion

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When asked to explain the controversial and complicated concept of white privilege, University of Colorado Boulder senior research scientist Wendy DuBow said it is something that’s typically invisible to white people but very obvious to people of color.

“White privilege allows white people to have certain possibilities and freedoms that we don’t even realize,” DuBow said.

She referenced the work of Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist, anti-racism activist and founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, and her analogy comparing white privilege to an invisible knapsack.

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“It’s the idea that we — white people — are walking around with a backpack filled with tools,” DuBow said. “We have water, a compass, food, a Swiss Army knife, maps, and she puts in things like blank checks and a code book.

“For a lot of people of color, their knapsack is empty, or it’s filled with rocks,” she explained. “There are all these things pulling Black people, brown people, Indigenous people down and back — things that are completely out of their control.”

White privilege is also difficult for people to identify, especially if they are unaccustomed to discussing issues like diversity, equity and inclusivity. Dubow suggests people reflect on different situations they’ve encountered and ask themselves, ‘how would I have been treated in this situation if I were Black, if I were a woman, if I were transgender?’

“It feels like, if people start thinking self-reflectively, you can recognize when you’re getting an advantage,” DuBow said.

In her 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh created a list of 50 “daily effects of white privilege” that she recognized in her life once she became aware of her “unearned skin privilege.” That list accompanies this article and is a useful tool people can use to identify something they might have been conditioned to ignore.

Learn more

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
By Peggy McIntosh

Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs professor Athena Renee Murray said white privilege describes the benefits of belonging to the dominant racial group. She said white people rarely are confronted about their race, and they generally can expect that being white will not negatively impact them at work, in relationships or in public spaces.

“Privilege operates effectively because it tends to be hidden from the people who benefit from it,” Murray said. “People who benefit from privilege may perceive that their successes are only the result of hard work or luck. They may not understand or want to believe that something else, such as white privilege, played a role.”

And according to DuBow, if someone is going to talk about race, they also have to talk about white privilege.

“In general, people who enjoy privilege don’t want the boat rocked, and a lot of people may feel as if they may have something to lose — ‘If I have to acknowledge my privilege, then that means somebody else must not have it, and what do I have to lose in order for them to experience it, too?’” DuBow said.

“If we avoid talking about white privilege, then we are missing this moment now where we can actually make a difference,” she added.

Discussing white privilege is difficult, but identifying it is important, Murray said.

“Educating yourself about privilege and implicit bias can be a first step in understanding how power influences one’s life and one’s experiences,” Murray said. “You can also learn about and affirm others’ experiences. Listen with empathy rather than retreating into defensiveness. Acknowledging that the world may be different to others than it is to you is a simple yet powerful way to express your commitment to a more equitable society.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.

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